BOISE -- A breakthrough in modern medicine is under way at a Boise hospital.
Saint Alphonsus just performed one of the first brain tumor surgeries in North America that features a new technology in the field.
The treatment allows neurosurgeons to precisely find and remove more cancerous and diseased cells, with the ultimate goal of prolonging a patient's survival while creating a better quality of life for a patient whose cancer is incurable.
Intrinsic gliomas - or brain tumors - start within the brain itself, therefore in brain surgery, Dr. Bruce Andersen says it's extremely difficult to draw the edge.
Surgeons can navigate the brain based on anatomy, experience and the appearance and abnormality of the tissue, but Andersen says "it's never really that perfect."
Now, a new technology aimed at making surgery more effective is being tested out in the United States.
"This highlights cancerous tissue that you normally can't see or detect any other way," Dr. Andersen said.
Because Saint Alphonsus performs so many cranial neurosurgeries, the hospital was chosen to carry out a clinical trial on 5-Aminolevulinic acid, or 5-ALA.
Dr. Andersen says patients drink about 1.5 ounces of that liquid amino acid four to five hours before surgery.
"... And what happens is it's absorbed by all the cells in your body, but when it's absorbed by tumor cells, and you shine a special kind of light on that tumor, it makes that tumor glow bright red."
So the tumor itself tells the surgeon where it is, helping doctors get a more precise resection of cancerous cells.
Andersen considers 5-ALA applications a breakthrough in the surgical treatment of brain tumors.
"If I can take out 99 percent of those then it makes the chances of radiation therapy and chemotherapy succeeding much much higher. And I think that's the benefit of this technique," Dr. Andersen added.
Andersen says this therapy would ultimately expand the time until tumor recurrence, and create a better quality of life for patients and their families.
"If you can double or triple it by doing something novel like this, I think that's [a] bonus," Andersen added.
Experts say its use is also helpful in biopsies of cancerous tissue - proving that 5-ALA is a versatile technique that surgeons at Saint Alphonsus will be using quite a bit throughout this clinical trial.
5-ALA treatment has been used in other parts of the globe for about five years. Here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration must ensure that this treatment is safe and effective through clinical trial before making it a standard of treatment.